While going hiking is an exciting adventure, it can quickly turn dangerous if you get lost, especially when you tend to hike on your own. That’s why being able to navigate, as well as knowing what to do in case you do lose track of where you are, are so crucial for your safety.
You don’t have to memorize every single thing, but even knowing the basics of wilderness navigation can make a huge difference as far as your experience goes.
Hiking Navigation Tips
Here are some of the more basic navigation tips.
Learn to Use a Map
In today’s world, many opt for a GPS rather than a good old map. While it’s understandable, as it makes navigation easier, you never know what can happen with it – especially if it uses the internet or needs recharging to work. That’s why it’s best to carry a map with you, just in case.
Learn to recognize different landmarks on it, like roads, rivers, buildings, etc.- it can help you greatly if you get lost. Mark the road you are planning to take before hitting the trail – it will be easier to figure out your location if the need arises.
Pay Attention to Significant Landmarks
Whenever you pass by a significant feature, be that a building, nature monument, a bridge, or something else that might help you find your way in case you get lost, make a mental note of it.
Regularly check on your GPS or on your map if you’re going in the right direction – if you happen to wander off, the sooner you realize it, the easier it will be to get back on the planned route.
You might also want to look for landmarks that will tell you when you’ve gone too far – a good example would be a river or a building located further down than where you have to go so that when you pass it, you know you need to turn back.
Another thing you should pay attention to is your pace. Knowing your pace can be extremely helpful in understanding how far you are from the last notable landmark you saw.
Tell Someone about Your Hike
The worst thing you can do for your own safety is go on a hike without letting anyone know you’re doing so. Whenever you’re going hiking, tell at least one person. Ideally, you should also inform them about when you’re supposed to be back, as well as give them a copy of a map with the route you’re planning on taking marked on it.
Establish a time by which they should contact you in order to make sure everything is fine and what they should do in case you don’t respond.
You might also want to consider taking a friend or your significant other on the hike – as they say, two heads are better than one.
If you’re just starting out hiking, the best idea would be to start with short and easy trails, ideally ones that are usually full of people, just in case anything goes wrong. It’s always easier to catch someone’s attention on crowded routes than on a secluded trail that is only chosen by a few people daily. Once you get used to and gain more experience in hiking, you can move on to more advanced routes.
Practice Your Navigation Skills
This is closely related to the first point about learning how to use a map. Even if you memorize it completely, it won’t be the same as real-life training. For this reason, choose an area where, even if you get lost, it won’t be a big deal, and decide on a few locations that you need to reach without looking at your phone or your GPS.
To get the best result and become the most familiar with reading maps, do it a few times in different areas. Once you feel more comfortable with finding your way without electronics, you can steadily move on to more complex areas.
We wouldn’t say that this is strictly a hiking navigation tip, but it’s definitely worth remembering. In case you do get lost, the last thing you want is to not have enough water or food to survive the night if the need arises, so you should pack supplies that will last you at least a day – just in case.
You might also want to consider bringing a foil blanket, a flashlight, a whistle, a small first aid kit, and a knife or a multi-tool – you never know when you might need them – as well as a map, which we already mentioned, and a compass.
Depending on where exactly you are hiking, it might be a good idea to bring a hoodie or a thin but warm coat in case you will need to spend the night under the stars, as in some regions, nights tend to be very cold, even if the weather during the day is nice and warm.
Should You Use a GPS?
While GPS is, without a doubt, an amazing invention as far as finding your way goes, be that when hiking or when visiting a new town, there are some people who consider it to be the “lazy” way of navigating since it doesn’t require you to pay as much attention as using a good old map does.
To that, we say that technology is there to help you, so if you feel like that’s the more attractive option for you, then go for it!
However, you should also be aware of its limitations and be prepared with a map and a compass just in case. You never know when your device might lose the internet signal or the battery dies, and with no way of telling where you should go, getting lost is as easy as pie.
What To Do When You Get Lost When Hiking?
Even the most experienced hikers can get lost, which is why it’s important to know what you should do in this situation. If you find yourself going off-course and losing your way, follow the STOP rule, as recommended by the US Forest Service:
- STOP. Once you realize you have lost your way, stop and stay where you are. Remember – panic will be your worst enemy, and you can make your situation worse if you start going in random directions. Sit down and drink and eat something so you can think clearly, as an empty stomach might distract you.
- THINK. Try to remember how you got to where you are. Did you pass any landmarks that can help you find your way back? Or maybe you took some photos that can help identify your location? Retrace your steps as well as you can.
- OBSERVE. Take out your compass and use it to better understand your location. If you are lost on a trail, don’t wander off of it – stay on it. If you see no other option, you can follow a drainage or stream downhill – they typically lead to a trail or a road. However, keep in mind that this should be your last resort, as it can get dangerous.
- PLAN. Don’t move from your location until you come up with a solid plan – rushing things will do you no good.
- Signal for help: There are a few international emergency signs for distress, all of which involve three of any signal, so three shots, three whistle blasts, three evenly spaced fires, or three flashes with a mirror.
- Check for phone signal regularly: Sometimes, the phone signal comes back for just a few seconds or minutes, so by checking it often, you increase your chances of catching that moment and being able to call for help.
- Lay out bright items: If you have anything bright in your bag, take it out so that it will be easier for other people to notice you.
- Stay the night: If it’s already dark or you are tired, it might be best to stay the night – it’s always easier to find your way back when the sun is out. Find a place to take shelter, which, ideally, should offer you protection in case it rains or you get surprised by other atmospheric phenomena.
The Bottom Line
Spending time outdoors is not only good for your physical health but also your mental state – according to several papers, it can reduce stress, restore mental fatigue, and improve mood, among other things. That’s one of the reasons why you should consider adding more outdoor activities to your life – and hiking is a great place to start.
One of the most important things you should learn before you choose your first trail is hiking navigation. Your safety should be the most important, and it can be hard to ensure it if you don’t know how to prepare accordingly.
Remember – even the most experienced hikers can get lost, but equipping yourself with even basic hiking navigation skills like reading the map can make a world of difference if one day you do find yourself going off-course and getting stranded.